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99 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This tall tale will eat you up like wildfire
The opening chapter of this book is glorious reminder of the power of a good yarn in the right hands. A young boy meets an escaped tiger on the streets on east London and his life is transformed. With each subsequent chapter the story just gets more compelling. I haven't read a more enjoyable book in years.

Like the best Victorian novels it follows a boy's life...
Published on 8 Feb. 2011 by Giles B

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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ménage à trois étoiles
I was pleasantly surprised by this one. After reading other nominees for the Orange Prize, I was expecting more dull worthiness, but Carol Birch proves that women's fiction doesn't have to be about wistful librarians swilling camomile tea.

The novel begins in the grotty sewers of nineteenth century London, where we meet the hero, Jaffy Brown. Following a chance...
Published on 9 April 2011 by Rachel Sirotinina


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99 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This tall tale will eat you up like wildfire, 8 Feb. 2011
This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
The opening chapter of this book is glorious reminder of the power of a good yarn in the right hands. A young boy meets an escaped tiger on the streets on east London and his life is transformed. With each subsequent chapter the story just gets more compelling. I haven't read a more enjoyable book in years.

Like the best Victorian novels it follows a boy's life through to old age, and on the way recounts the most extraordinary voyage. After his encounter with the tiger, our hero Jaffy takes on work for its owner, Mr Jamrach - traveller, menagerie-owner and purveyor of the world's strangest creatures. This work soon involves a commission to procure a creature for Jamrach that may or may not exist, a so-called sea dragon that is recorded as living in the Indian Ocean. So Jaffy's voyage begins, and seems to be going very well. But then fate's winds blow in another direction.

It has all the verbal energy of The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, with the storytelling nous of Joseph O'Connor. Like a great David Attenborough film it takes you right up close to nature, whether the whiskers of Bengal tiger, the spout of a whale or the snapping jaws of a komodo dragon. But best of all it explores the wildness within our own species and asks what circumstances might see that laid bare.

A stunning piece of fiction from a writer at the top of her game. I must read more Birch.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Here There Be Dragons, 12 May 2011
By 
Rotgut "rotgut" (Warrington UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
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Slow burn historical travel tale that eventually explodes into gory horror.

This novel is the story of Jaffy Brown, a sailor and naturalist in Victorian London. A number of exciting incidents including shipwreck, attack by wild animals and whaling are described in an involving and detailed first person narration.

Despite being packed with incident, the story is slow paced. Even the earliest parts of the book, describing Jaffy's childhood are unhurried, the ship-board passages are almost static. The characters themselves draw the reader's attention to this : "Skip..said..."We've gone into dragon time."...It was true, something had changed, as if we'd sailed into a different air."(p179)

This slow development only makes the eventual crisis more shocking.

The fictional search for Komodo Dragons, quite plausible, is fascinating. It makes an interesting contrast with David Attenborough's real life account of his search for the Dragons, a short 100 years or so later. Strange to think that Jaffy's Dragon could well have survived, ancient and huge, to see Attenborough and his film crew.

"Jamrach's Menagerie" is a well written and invoving book, although readers should be aware it is, inevitably, a difficult and grisly read at times. The short afterword describing which elements of the story are based on real life incidents is surprising.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, moving and haunting, 22 May 2011
By 
Sid Nuncius (London) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 10 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
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I thought this was an excellent book. It is gripping, moving and haunting and although it deals with a great deal of suffering and sheer horror, it is often very beautiful.

From the title and some reviews which describe it as "rollicking" and a "romp," I expected a jolly story about a young man becoming involved with an exotic menagerie in Victorian London. It turned out to be very different - a complex, literary novel of the sea as our narrator sets off on a journey on one of the last of the whaling ships under sail to find and capture an exotic, possibly mythical, creature. I found it utterly enthralling, with much to say about the nature of friendship, of growing up, people's behaviour in desperate times, guilt and redemption and much more. It never preaches or philosophises, but presents us with a vivid picture of very real-seeming people, often in extremities of endurance and suffering, and asks us to consider them compassionately. There are incidents and characters here which will remain with me for a long time.

The book also captures wonderfully the atmosphere of Victorian London and of life on a sailing ship and whaler. Melville, Patrick O'Brian and others have set a phenomenally high standard for novels of the sea, whaling and the age of sail but I think Carol Birch, while wholly different from either, matches them for believability and her ability to transport the reader into her world. I thought that the description of the pursuit, killing and processing of a whale was simply brilliant, for example, even though it was familiar from other novels. There were several other passages which were just as good.

The prose was a real pleasure to read. It has an individual voice, is extremely readable and manages to convey subtle and complex emotions and situations remarkably effectively. There are times when it is almost poetic and at others verging on hallucinatory, but is always exactly appropriate to the story. I have not read any of Carol Birch's previous novels, but I certainly will now.

Given what I expected, I am surprised to find myself enthusing so strongly about this book, but I genuinely thought it was outstandingly good and I recommend it extremely warmly.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evocative, original story-telling, 27 Mar. 2011
This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
Carol Birch's new novel is the evocative, moving, and original story of Jaffy Brown, a young boy in nineteenth-century London. Jaffy has an encounter with a tiger in an East-End street, and this leads him to make the acquaintance of Mr. Jamrach, a trader of exotic animals. Through working for Jamrach Jaffy meets a wide variety of characters in London, including Tim and Ishbel. These are twins one year his senior who come to shape his life.

Jaf's story is gripping and unusual. There is a refreshing lack of clichés, in either plot or narrative, and no lazy shortcuts. The writing is evocative, with Birch excellently portraying atmosphere, with an almost tactile sense of London and of life on board a ship.

Birch's real triumph however is in her characters and characterisation - the real menagerie. As the narrator, Jaf is the standard likeable everyman and moral compass of the tale. Those surrounding him, such as Dan Rymer, Ishbel, Skip, Captain Proctor, and Rainey are illustrated in deft strokes, each believable and rounded. This is especially evident in the character of Tim, Jaf's boyhood friend and later shipmate. Tim's youthful cruelty and tyranny is excellently portrayed as an aspect of youth. Similarly, the growth of their friendship is realistically handled, and their later scenes together are quite affecting.

The only issue with this novel is the sometimes inconsistent voice of Jaf, the first-person narrator. This was particularly noticeable at the beginning of the novel, when Jaf's voice shifted between that of his young, uneducated London patter, and that of his older, educated and experienced voice, who was ostensibly telling the story of his life. This shift between Jaf's memories and contemporary narration was not always clear.

This, however, is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent novel.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rip-roaring sea adventure!, 28 April 2011
By 
Charliecat (Oxfordshire, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
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Jamrach's Menagerie is a fabulous, rip-roaring Victorian sea adventure. From the filth of the Ratcliffe Highway and London Docks to the storms and vastness of the Indian Ocean we follow Jaffy Brown. As a boy Jaffy Brown was nearly eaten by a tiger but was saved, at the last minute, by the enigmatic Mr Jamrach.

Mr Jamrach employs Jaffy at his rather bizarre animal menagerie and Jaffy is introduced to people who will change his life, the brother and sister, Tim and Ishbel Linver and the crusty old explorer Dan Rymer.

Before long Jaffy Brown finds himself enlisting on a whaling ship bound on a strange and dangerous mission for Mr Jamrach. It proves to be a life-changing voyage crammed full of adventure, excitement and danger.

The only other novel by Carol Birch I've read is Scapegallows and I wasn't very enamoured of it but I was drawn to Jamrach's Menagerie because it's a sea story and I've always been a sucker for sea stories. Jamrach's Menagerie is everything you'd expect from an adventure on the high seas. The storms, calms, the vast oceans and the baking heat are all here in vivid detail. The principal moments in the novel are well written and absorbing and the characters are well drawn, especially the main ones, although some of the many other sailors are rather stock types. The story is always engaging and gripping and I was hooked until the last page.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Would You Believe It?, 25 April 2011
By 
Richard M. Seel (Norfolk UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
An exciting tale of a young boy growing up in London in the 19th century who meets Mr Jamrach of Jamrach's Menagerie and accidentally puts his head in a large cat's mouth. This in turn leads him to working at Jamrach's with another boy slightly older than himself, who has a twin sister.

From Birch's description, London seemed to be awash with animals and Mr Jamrach had the biggest selection of all, including many caged birds. The young boy, Jaffy, starts to work at Jamrach's and is soon on an adventure, travelling to find a `dragon' in a small boat with an adventurer whose job it was to capture animals.

On route they catch whales, killing them for the blubber and then going to many tropical islands. The tale finishes with a shipwreck and how the crew dealt with it.

When he returns to port, Jaffy meets the sister again and sets up his own menagerie.

The sort of book one can't put down and I am loath to tell you more by giving the story away. Birch's story is clearly thought out and her writing flows to draw the reader from one exciting event to another. A delightful story.

Buy, read and enjoy.

[Review by Shirleyanne Seel]
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rip-roaring read expertly told, 14 Feb. 2011
This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
Carol Birch is not a writer I have come across previously, but I am immensely grateful to have finally bumped into her work- her brilliant evocations of both the grimy, tough life of 19th century working-classs London and then the harshness of life on the ocean waves are vivid, rich and addictively more-ish.

Coupled with Birch's ability to spin an excellent yarn peopled by loveable, cheeky, yet frail characters, Jamrach's Menagerie is a reading feast. It's a novel which takes you on a classic, gothic adventure to the ends of the Earth, whilst exploring the essence of what it means to be human.

This novel is a treat, and is almost imppossible to put down once you've set sail on the search for the ever-so-rare Komodo dragon.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A testament to the human spirit, 12 Oct. 2012
By 
Petra Bryce "bookworm" (Cradley, Herefordshire) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
Jaffy Brown grows up in 19th-century London, his mother a single parent, and Jaffy is forced from a very early age to contribute to their income, but he often goes hungry. One day, as he's running an errand, he encounters an escaped tiger in the street and, not realising the danger he's in, reaches out to pat it on the nose. The tiger very gently takes his head in its mouth and drags him a few yards before the owner, Mr Jamrach, can intervene. To compensate Jaffy for the experience, he offers him a job in his menagerie, looking after a colourful variety of animals, and from then on, Jaffy's life changes for the better. After a few years, he and his best friend Tim decide to go to sea to look for a "dragon" (actually an ora or Komodo dragon) for a wealthy client somewhere in the Pacific. This is the start of a wild adventure that will change Jaffy to the core of his being ...

Actually based on two true stories, and referencing a third, this is a very strange book, told in the first person by Jaffy. He's a very likeable guide, and we willingly follow him wherever he leads us: from the sewers of Bermondsey to Mr Jamrach's menagerie and the high seas. The prose is often quite luminous and appears like poetry at times, the sea with its qualities of beauty, immensity and inherent danger always present in the background. The closeness of the twenty souls on-board ship is described very movingly, in particular Jaffy's inner turmoil when misfortune befalls the enterprise. The subsequent 100+ pages don't make for easy reading and are certainly not for the squeamish but are essential for the rest of the book to understand Jaffy's emotional state (maybe it did go on for a bit too long, there were times when I started to feel distinctly queasy). I have to say that I really enjoyed the book, in particular Carol Birch's prose, at the same time I have to admit that I couldn't stomach reading it for a second time. I'm planning to read one of her previous novels soon to compare.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch, 15 Jan. 2012
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This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Kindle Edition)
This is a swashbuckling adventure story from the high seas. It begins when Jaffy Brown is a little boy, growing up amongst the sailors and prostitutes of maritime nineteenth century London. A confrontation with an escaped tiger results in him getting a job with Jamrach, a dealer in exotic animals from overseas. Jaffy always dreams of going to sea and his chance comes as a teenager when a wealthy client commissions a search for a dragon, at the time somewhat mythical and elusive but we know it to be the Komodo dragon of Indonesia. Jaffy, his best friend Tim, and seasoned sailor and adventurer, Dan, set sail on board a whaling ship on their quest for the dragon.

This book has it all. The streets of London are brought to life in a vibrant and colourful way, I especially loved the descriptions of the menagerie and Jamrach's shop, full of treasures and curiosities. We then learn about life on the ocean wave and uncomfortable scenes of whaling - the brutality of the kill, the numbers that are killed and the sheer size of the whale shock the reader. Eventually the ship arrives in Indonesia to search for the dragon and the author conveys the tension of the search and the fear of the sailors as they encounter and seek to capture one to ship back to London. The descriptions of the dragon throughout the book are vivid - its strength, cunning and unpredictability make for a fearsome creature to share a boat with. But that is not all, the ship is destroyed whilst crossing the Pacific and Jaffy and the ship's survivors are cast adrift for 65 days. With little food and water to sustain them, they are forced to contemplate not just cannibalism but also self-sacrifice in order for at least someone to survive. At this point the book does seem to drag on a bit (pardon the pun). I did begin to lose interest but this is not a long book by any means and for the author to convey the tedium and hopeless despair of the stricken sailors she needs her readers to feel this too and to be looking towards the horizon thinking that surely at last a ship will appear to rescue them.

I absolutely loved this book and think it firmly deserves its place on the Booker shortlist and the more I think about it, the better the book gets. From the excitement of the dragon hunt to the unthinkable horrors at sea this book is literary adventure for the reader and I highly recommend it.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ménage à trois étoiles, 9 April 2011
By 
Rachel Sirotinina (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Jamrach's Menagerie (Paperback)
I was pleasantly surprised by this one. After reading other nominees for the Orange Prize, I was expecting more dull worthiness, but Carol Birch proves that women's fiction doesn't have to be about wistful librarians swilling camomile tea.

The novel begins in the grotty sewers of nineteenth century London, where we meet the hero, Jaffy Brown. Following a chance encounter with an escaped tiger, Jaffy gains work as a yard boy for the tiger's repentant owner; the eponymous Mr Jamrach, an importer of exotic animals. Jaffy proves to be a gifted animal handler and is sent on a mission to capture a `dragon' in the East Indies. Naturally, all does not go according to plan, leaving Jaffy lost at sea with a group of increasingly desperate shipmates.

One of the strengths for me is the sense of place and time this book conveys; it succeeds in vividly bringing to life a time when the world still contained such mystery and adventure that it was possible to believe in dragons, and surviving a sea voyage was more a matter of chance than GPS. (Of course, from a privileged 21st century perspective, we can sneer that a Komodo dragon is merely a big lizard, but that's not the point).

However, this technique works best when describing the characters' adventures on land, first in London and later during exotic port forays along the way. This causes the second half of the book to suffer, as the bulk of the narrative takes place on a marooned vessel in the open ocean. Although initially dramatic, this section was so drawn out I ended up hoping the whole lot of them would pitch overboard.

The quality of the author's prose style is also (perversely) an occasional sticking point: it is so evocative and visceral that I found several scenes featuring whaling and other animal abuse pretty hard to take. Be advised, this is not a book to read at breakfast!

The ending is something of a fizzler, sadly, leaving some character's riddles unsolved, whilst others tie up too neatly. All in all, though, a good escapist read, and the cover art's pretty swanky too. If the whole thing had been as good as the first part, I'd have given it more stars, but sadly the later noodling sections let it down.
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Jamrach's Menagerie
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
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